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Authors: Beth Cato

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BOOK: Breath of Earth
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The young boy sat up straighter. “Thank you, sir,” he whispered, voice still ragged. It would take him hours to fully recover.

Ingrid looked away, that familiar anger heavy in her chest. Wardens and boys in training carried kermanite openly from watch fobs and cuff links, or most any other accessory where stones could be easily switched out once they were full.

She had to be far more subtle. Her kermanite chunks clinked together in her dress pocket. She had to take care not to touch them today, or the energy she held would be siphoned away.

Ingrid loved this slight flush of power, because that's what
it was—power. It sizzled just beneath her skin, intoxicated her with how it prickled at her nerves. Certainly, if she absorbed any more energy, she'd use the kermanite. She didn't want to feel sick, though she could hold much more power than these boys, or even the wardens. Mr. Sakaguchi said she took after Papa—that she stored power like a bank vault, while most everyone else had the capacity of a private safe.

When it came to her natural skill, Ingrid often regarded herself as a rare fantastic or yokai—not like garden ornamentals such as the kappas or naiads sold to the stuffed shirts on Market Street—but like the geomantic Hidden Ones Mr. Sakaguchi so loved to research. She was a creature relegated to idle fancy and obscure mythology, and aggravating shoes.

As she neared the meeting room, she heard the sound of chairs scuffing against the wood slat floor. The door opened and voices rose in volume. Warden Thornton exited first, one hand pressed to his gut while the other held a folded newspaper to his chest.

“My pardon,” he said, moaning. “I think—I do believe I'm getting ill. Maybe the same thing as Mr. Calhoun.”

“Oh dear,” Ingrid said. Warden Calhoun had come down sick quite suddenly the day before, which had been quite a surprise considering he was hale and active in the way of Theodore Roosevelt. “Here, Mr. Thornton. I'll help you to the door and fetch a cab.”

“Thank you, child.” He moaned again. Mr. Thornton wasn't deathly pale as Mr. Calhoun had been, but his red eyes and shaky hands weren't normal. He was an experienced warden, so this certainly wasn't power sickness.

They passed the open door to the library. Inside, the seniors—teenagers—muttered as they stared at open texts on a table. Auxiliaries functioned like boarding schools for those gifted with geomancy, with the Cordilleran the largest in the country. Boys from age six through twenty resided in dormitories just above. During the day, they attended classes for their general education, and supplemented that with the basics of geomancy. Ingrid had absorbed their lessons as she ferried coal or scrubbed floors. Mr. Sakaguchi taught her more during evening tutorial sessions.

Mr. Thornton released a shaky breath. He stepped alongside her and fumbled open his watch. His fingers could barely manage the case. “Time. Such a peculiar thing. Passes so slowly, and then so fast.” His British accent lightened the words as he looked out the windows overlooking the street.

Ingrid nodded, all the more certain the man was coming down with a genuine fever.

Mr. Thornton, like his ill comrade Mr. Calhoun, was from Britannia and had spent many years in India. The Cordilleran Auxiliary took pride in the acquisition of both experienced wardens—two priceless jewels thieved from the Unified Pacific's greatest rival. The Chinese had once held that distinction.

Ingrid followed Mr. Thornton's gaze and frowned. A laundry truck idled at the curb. Its canvas cover advertised a laundry company in Chinatown. “Odd. Laundry day is tomorrow.”

“Oh, is it?” He sat on a bench in the genkan and handed off the newspaper to her. The small side room was modeled on Japanese households and featured cubbies where men and boys stored their shoes. The space served a practical purpose
in the auxiliary, but like many other Japanese customs, had become quite commonplace in San Francisco and the rest of the country. Ingrid retrieved his shoes from the wardens' getabako and set them by his feet. She quickly replaced her house shoes with a thicker-soled set to go outside.

As he tied his laces, she donned a hat and headed out to the street. The laundry truck had departed, but plenty of other vehicles had taken its place. The auxiliary's stately brick building faced Battery Street. “This is a city built by geomancers, as surely as if we carried every brick,” Mr. Sakaguchi had commented more than once. Tony buildings stretched ten to twenty stories high—such height would have been foolhardy without the presence of the wardens and adepts to siphon from the earth. It created a fine cycle of business. Even Mayor Butterfield had once proclaimed that San Francisco prospered due to the grace of God, the Gold Rush, and geomancy.

The thoroughfare was busy for a late Sunday morning, but by the finery of passersby, it seemed nearby churches had just finished their Easter services. Out of sight, a cable car chimed as it traveled along Clay Street. The stench of manure, autocar exhaust, and oil mingled like a rancid soup. A messenger bicyclist squealed to a stop at the steps, and leaning his transport against the stone railing, bounded toward the door.

Ingrid skimmed the northbound traffic. Mr. Thornton joined her.

“Nothing yet?” he wheezed.

“No.” She glanced at the newspaper in her hand. “I should give this back to you. Is there news about India, sir?”

He straightened as if he was suddenly well, his eyes narrowing.
“Here? Americans caring about that sort of news?” He almost shoved the paper in her face. “Page thirteen. About a half inch of a column. Another twenty thousand estimated dead in hellfire bombardments in Calcutta over the past two months.”

“I'm sorry, sir,” she said softly. News of Japan and China dominated the headlines. The rebellion in India was Britannia's concern, and most in America didn't really care how many died on either side there so long as it kept Britain busy. Only horrific killings by the modern incarnation of Thuggees seemed to get special attention. Ingrid often heard young boys in the auxiliary excitedly discussing the gruesome executions said to be committed in the name of Kali.

“Sorry. Yes, well.” He stopped himself, shaking his head. He glanced at his watch again and pressed a fist to his stomach.

Since Mrs. Thornton's passing, it seemed Mr. Thornton took all happenings in India as a personal affront. He'd called the place home for much of his life, and now its cities and jungles were being rendered to ash as the rebellion continued.

Ingrid spied a red flag on a car and waved. The cab puttered their way.

She held the door wide as Mr. Thornton stepped inside. The light vehicle lurched and squawked as he settled in. As she swung the door closed, he held out a hand to halt her.

“I'm sorry, Miss Carmichael,” he said, his voice tremulous. She gawked at him. Mr. Thornton had never regarded her with as much arrogance as other men, nor had he ever been friendly. “You—you and your mother—have always been so
kind to me. I still remember well how you tended to my wife at the end.”

Mrs. Thornton had always been a pleasant soul, her dark cheeks rosy and her saris bright against the gloom of fog. Influenza took her quite quickly not long before Mama died.

“It was only right, sir,” Ingrid said.

Mr. Thornton flinched, his fist again curling against his gut.

“I'm sure Mr. Sakaguchi will ring you later to check in. I hope you feel better quickly, sir!”

She shut the door with a hollow metal click. The cab pulled away from the curb. The foulness of manure slapped her nostrils as the wheels rolled through fresh nuggets. Several men shoved past her, one granting her enough warning to snap, “Move, girl.”

She hopped up the stairs, that familiar annoyance prickling at her chest. The messenger boy exited the front door and almost cleared the whole staircase in a leap.

“Miss! Pardon me, miss?”

Ingrid turned. A man stood on the first step, his body lean beneath a draped brown leather coat. He wasn't slender in a fragile way, not like some men who could be bowled over by a stiff bay wind. Chestnut hair with a slight wave was cropped to a few inches in length, and framed a face with a rather angular nose. He stared back at her through a pair of pincenez glasses and smiled. Not a leer, not the stiff smile of someone exercising their dominion over her. No, he looked on her with genuine pleasantness.

She cleared her throat. “Yes, sir? Can I help you?”

“You work for the auxiliary, miss?” He doffed a brown derby hat that looked like it had been sat on more than once. Despite being popped back into place, little ridges marred the top of the dome.

“I do, sir. I'm a secretary for Warden Sakaguchi, but I help the entire board.”

“The name's Cypress Jennings, miss, and Mr. Thornton expected me to call on him today about the private sale of some kermanite. He said he'd be in meetings and wasn't sure about a particularly good time?” A southern accent, luscious as sorghum, flavored his words.

“Oh. Yes. I'm sorry, sir. The board just adjourned for a break, but Mr. Thornton's come down ill. He left not a moment ago.”

The brightness in his face dimmed. Ingrid wished she could tell him to buy from Mr. Sakaguchi or Mr. Kealoha, but he'd already initiated business with Mr. Thornton. It'd be rude to poach away a customer.

“You might try calling on him at home later,” she said. “Maybe he'll feel better. I can write his address for you—”

“Don't fuss over it, miss. I can look him up. I do hope I can buy that kermanite today, though, before my business partner goes apoplectic.”

“I hope you can make the purchase, too.”

They stared at each other, the silence suddenly drawn out and awkward. He scratched at his chin, his lips working like he wanted to say something more.

“I had best get back to work, sir,” Ingrid said, lowering her eyes as she knew was proper.

“Certainly, miss. Thank you kindly for your time.”

What a nice man! She slipped back inside the auxiliary and shut the big door behind her, then paused to lean on it. She felt the sudden melodramatic need to fan herself, and almost giggled out loud. Good grief, but that man's accent alone could sweeten a pitcher of tea. She set her hat on its hook and switched shoes.

Wardens and adepts cluttered the hall, hunkered down in their cliques. She passed by, mostly ignored. One man spat a juicy wad of tobacco into an ornate copper spittoon. Mr. Sakaguchi was nowhere in sight, so she crossed the hallway and knocked on a wooden door. At the sound of his voice, she entered the office.

He stood in front of a furnace along the back wall. Dark cherry paneling and overloaded bookshelves created a claustrophobic cave. As she walked toward him, he shut the small iron door of the furnace. Odd; he used to always burn the notes he received from Theodore Roosevelt in that exact manner, but their friendship had been fractured for several months now. More likely, he needed to stoke the fire. Ingrid certainly hadn't been in there to tend it.

Instead, she contained lingering warmth from both the earth's power and her brief yet pleasant interaction with that man on the steps.

She fought the urge to smile too broadly, which would only invite nosiness. Mr. Sakaguchi had prodded her a bit too much of late.
You need more friends your own age. You are too dependent on Lee. You need a life outside the auxiliary.

A life, where? Ingrid loved Mr. Sakaguchi dearly, but sometimes
her ojisan seemed to exist in a world of delightful ignorance where he had achieved enlightenment and expected everyone else to be on the cusp of it as well.

He tended to ignore the fact that, at a glance, most people assumed Ingrid to be an immigrant and likely illiterate or ignorant of English and Japanese. She didn't fit in anywhere. Too educated to mingle with house staff in the off hours, too low in class to blend with the elite society with whom Mr. Sakaguchi often did business. Her age classified her as doomed to spinsterhood. Not to mention the complication of her magic.

As for her dependence on Lee, well, that wasn't about to change. She loved him like a little brother. It didn't matter a whit to her that he was Chinese and regarded with contempt by much of society.

Ingrid stopped in the middle of the room. To her surprise, Mr. Sakaguchi's brows were drawn together, his expression sober.

“Is there bad news?” she asked, again thinking of Mr. Roosevelt.

“Perhaps.” He stood by his desk with his hands clasped at his back. “We may have company soon.” By his expression, these guests were about as welcome as a kraken at a ship's christening.

“Should I send a note along to the house, ask Jiao to prepare dinner or rooms?”

“No. I don't think that will be necessary.” Mr. Sakaguchi sighed and looked to the clock on his desk. “At least this matter of Vesuvius will conclude soon, my efforts as ineffectual as ever.”

Ingrid frowned. It wasn't like him to be this grim. What sort of horrid company were they expecting? She pivoted to lock the door, then walked to the Victor Graphophone on the cramped bookshelf. She thumbed through the sleeved record albums stacked to one side.

“Ingrid, the meeting will commence in minutes—”

She set the record on the spindle and fastened it into place. A tug of the lever and the black disc began to spin. She set the needle on the outer edge of the album. Static screeched through the horn and then the twanged notes of the shamisen rang through. The three-stringed instrument resembled an American banjo, and here it played a short, simple melody in repetition for some thirty minutes. Not that she would need to play the album for that long.

“Then we have enough time for this. Here,” she said, motioning to the rug.

He didn't look enthusiastic, but he still walked over and lowered himself to the floor.

She knelt to face him and tilted an ear toward the Graphophone, her hands poised in midair. Simultaneously, she and Mr. Sakaguchi clapped hands to a beat of three. She quickly moved her hands to make two Vs atop her head—fox ears—while at the same time Mr. Sakaguchi briefly rested his hands on his lap.

BOOK: Breath of Earth
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